Kathy comes home: A new sitcom paints a happier picture of Kathy Burke's childhood
Her childhood was scarred by cancer and alcoholism, yet 'Walking and Talking' paints a happy picture of her youth. She tells James Rampton why.
The Independent, 21 June 2012
By James Rampton
Over the years, publishers have constantly pestered Kathy Burke to write her autobiography. But the actress, writer and director has always rejected their advances, considering such books "money for old rope".
Now, Burke has finally been persuaded – after a fashion. She has scripted Walking and Talking, a delightful new Sky Atlantic comedy about her own childhood. "Walking and Talking is my autobiography," she confirms. "It's best to do it that way, rather than spend months writing a book that then ends up in the bargain bucket with all the other idiots' autobiographies."
Based on a short film Burke wrote for Sky's Little Crackers season the Christmas before last, the four-part series follows 14-year-old Kath (played by Ami Metcalf from Upstairs Downstairs) and her best friend, Mary (Aimee-Ffion Edwards, who appeared in Jerusalem), as they bunk off school and walk and talk their way around the streets of Islington in the late Seventies.
They discuss everything from the boys they fancy and what they are having for tea to the significance of the band X-Ray Spex. The teenagers' perambulating discussions are interspersed with the musings of two nuns who teach at their school, the livid Angry Nun (played by Burke) and the naive Pretty Nun (Sean Gallagher from Coronation Street).
Walking and Talking is a love letter to 1970s music, television and books, but above all, it's a love letter to friendship. Graced with magnetic performances from its two young stars, the piece is a sweet antidote to the prevailing cynicism of so much modern-day television comedy. It's a "glad-com" rather than a "sad-com".
Burke, 48, is talking over coffee in a central London hotel. She is a winning combination of warm and waspish. Even though she rarely appears on television these days, she remains a widely loved figure for her compelling on-screen mix of vitality and vulnerability.
When she was just two years old, Burke lost her mother to cancer – an event that forms a poignant backdrop to Walking and Talking. Brought up first by neighbours and then by her alcoholic father, she saw a way into a different life when she started attending the Anna Scher Theatre School in north London at the age of 16.
It wasn't hard for her to write about her own childhood as long as she always felt in control of how much she actually gave away. "What surprised me was how much I mentioned not having a mum in the script. Fourteen was the age when I really noticed it, especially when Mary would say, 'I tell my mum everything.' Not having a mum was my thing. It came with a sort of fame. Other kids couldn't get their head around that. But looking back now, I'm quite proud about how I managed myself. I didn't end up sniffing glue or running away. I just got on with things."
She made her screen debut in Scrubbers, a movie about a young offenders' institute, aged 17, before going on to star in such hit comedies as Harry Enfield and Chums, Kevin and Perry Go Large and Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (for which she picked up the Best Comedy Actress gong at the British Comedy Awards in 2002).
Her performance as the terminally lazy, chain-smoking Waynetta Slob opposite Harry Enfield's Wayne still causes fans who see her smoking in the street to come up and repeat her catchphrase, "I am smoking a fag!" Burke's stock response, apparently, is to don a fake American accent and say: "Get with the programme! That is so last century."
Her aim with Walking and Talking was to conjure up the optimism of youth. "I hope it makes people feel uplifted. It's made to put viewers in a good mood. If it helps people remember a happy childhood, that would be lovely. It's not at all cynical."
She also had another agenda: a desire to show that children should still be regarded as children, and not as smaller versions of adults. "In this series, we never see these two young actresses smoke, swear, take their clothes off, or kiss anyone. What happens to a lot of young actresses is that they have a great part in episode one, and then for the rest of the series, they are a cadaver! They should have two photos in Spotlight: one alive and one dead. They always end up on some slab somewhere. I'm sick of dramas about crime and murder which always make young actresses take their clothes off."
She feels strongly that women have not always been well represented in comedy. "I know we were all meant to love it, but I really hated Bridesmaids because they were just bitches to each other," Burke asserts. "People said it was the female version of The Hangover, but it wasn't. In The Hangover, the characters were looking out for each other, while in Bridesmaids it was just, 'She's a bitch – so I'll out-bitch her!'
"All female writers are supposed to aspire to that, but they can stick it. It makes me puke – it's not helping anyone. That's why I think Walking and Talking is rare. It's is not about girls being absolute bitches and being skinnier than each other; it's about girls who actually care about each other."
There might have been a temptation for Burke to impose her adult self on the teenage Kath, but the writer resisted it. "It could have been a real gag-fest, but that wouldn't have been true to life. I'm also quite proud of the fact that there is no knowingness in the girls' dialogue. I didn't want to be a grown-up putting words into these teenagers' mouths. I only slipped on one occasion when Mary says, 'I don't want babies. All I want is my own fridge.' That's definitely me!"
Despite positive feedback, Burke does not envisage writing another series. "I feel that's it. I love Kath and Mary's innocence and naivety. But I don't want to go into the dark territory of the later teenage years. So I'm going to leave audiences wanting more. Also, after this period, I started acting, and who gives a shit about actors?"
As for acting, Burke may have had a laugh donning the habit of Angry Nun, but that does not mean that she will be making a full-scale return to it any time soon.
She has also impressed in straight dramas such as Elizabeth, Tom Jones, Mr Wroe's Virgins and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and deservedly won the Best Actress Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for her harrowing performance as the battered wife in Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth. One critic quite rightly described her as "the best British character actress of her generation".
"I find acting so tiring!" she wails. "When I did those two days as Angry Nun, I had to get up at five in the morning. I thought, 'Sod this.' That's why I won't direct film or telly. I can't do those early mornings anymore. I will only direct theatre because that starts at nine in the morning."
"Who wants to get up at five every morning? I did four days on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and by the end of it, I was bored. I thought, 'I'm over this now. Let's go home. I've met Colin Firth, and he's lovely. Now, where are the sandwiches?'"